What They Don’t Teach You In School… About Marketing

Over the last couple of weeks, I have lectured in 3 different college marketing classes (I have 2 more scheduled) and judged a high school marketing competition. Based on these encounters with mushy young minds, I was able to make a few general observations about the status of our educational system as it relates to marketing. Some of the observations were good, and some not so good. However, I walked away with a general frustration at a lack of the solid marketing principles upon which brands are built today in our educational system.

Don’t get me wrong, while there are some great teachers out there who pour their heart and soul into helping students learn and apply the right knowledge, I think some are a little farther removed from the real world of marketing. In fact, I think it is changing so quickly, it may have passed them by entirely.

Based on my experiences over the last few weeks, here are a few key principles that I don’t feel like teachers spend enough time on in school:

  1. Positioning – It seems common sense that a class on marketing would start with “what makes you different than everyone else?” I believe that teachers spend WAY too much time on the 4 P’s (Product, Price, Place, Promotion). While these are the basic building blocks of marketing, you first have to understand where to build. I believe that any beginning class on marketing should be 80/20: 80% positioning and 20% 4 P’s. Most of the high school marketers built their plans around the 4 P’s but with no thought to differentiation. In my opinion (or IMO for you short hand freaks), positioning is the blood that runs through the veins of marketing. Thank you to the Godfathers of positioning, Al Ries and Jack Trout, for blessing us with this morsel of wisdom almost 40 years ago.
  2. Focused Segmentation – Again, this is another component that receives cursory attention in school, but is critical to the success of any marketing effort. The more focused your target market, the easier your job becomes as a marketer. Start with demographics, narrow your focus with psychographics, then pinpoint with buying emotions. As the ole’ cliche goes in marketing, “the more you narrow your focus, the more you broaden your appeal.” In my view, marketing is a very simple concept. Identify what truly makes you unique (positioning), find out who cares about it (segmentation), and figure out how they get their information. That leads me to the next point.
  3. Marketing is About Conversations – This was one of my greatest frustrations, with both high school and college students. Whenever they developed their marketing mix, they went right to TV, Radio, Billboard, Print, oh.. and some Internet stuff. Why? Because that is the way their parents and their parents’ parents did it. This is where the previous 2 pieces come into play. If you do any sort of of research, people are skipping TV commercials or watching it online, buying satellite radio or iPods so they don’t have to listen to radio commercials, and getting their news and information online rather than from the printed newspaper or magazine. Not that these can’t still be effective, but stop and think about where the target gets its information from first. Second, think about how you can talk WITH them, not AT them. The reason social media has exploded is because consumers want transparency, not carefully crafted marketing spin.
  4. The Cause – This is a theme I talk quite a bit about in my interactions with clients as well as students. In order for any brand to become outrageously successful, it has to create customer evangelists. However, most marketing efforts are focused on “speeds and feeds”, if you will. Customers buy products, and will buy your competitors’ products whenever they are cheaper or more convenient, but evangelists buy causes, or buy into causes. Evangelists have to be passionate about something in order to be evangelists. Who get’s passionate about a “good quality product” or “good customer service”? What is the higher, holier calling to what you do? What is the altruistic meaning behind why you are in business? And don’t start into your “mission statement” because that ain’t it either. What is the real reason people buy your product? That is your cause.
  5. Social Media – To the credit of the college professors, this is the topic they wanted me to come and talk to their classes about. However, most of them were clueless about how to integrate it into marketing efforts. They knew it was a powerful medium, they just didn’t know how to use it. I remember giving seminars 5 years ago about what a blog or a podcast was and now people come to me hungry for information on how to use social media tools. It is a nice change, but those who educate our nation’s youth need to be up to speed on what social media means to 21st century brands. They need to integrate case studies into their classes and, most importantly, need to be users of social media themselves. (As a side note, I was shocked with how few students knew about Twitter, but were avid Facebook users)
  6. The Simple, Repeatable Message – Unfortunately, most would insert the word “tagline” here but a simple, repeatable message is not a tagline. It is a one line answer to the question, “what is it that you do?”. Too much of marketing today is what Bill Bernbach called “irrelevant brilliance”. It is all about snarky quips and provacative phrases. They miss the simple answer to “why should I buy from you?” Creatives often step over (or on) the simple, repeatable message in favor of some mythical creature called “the big idea”. Don’t get me wrong, your marketing efforts should be wrapped around a consistent, compelling theme but you don’t need to create complex out of simple.

These are just a few of the things that I wish they taught more of, or better, in school. It would sure make what our youth are paying for their educations worth the price.

As a side note, I somewhat broke the rules in the high school marketing competition, but I did it consistently. I took the time with each team to enlighten them as to the principles above. Hopefully they walked away from our interaction with a little more clarity as to what marketing is all about. I thought that was much more important than how many points they received.

What about you? What nugget of marketing wisdom have you learned that you wish they taught you in school?

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6 thoughts on “What They Don’t Teach You In School… About Marketing

  1. I am a Marketing Teacher at Mountain View High School and I am looking at improving our curriculum . Are you interested in being on our Advisory Committee? I also believe other Marekting Teachers in the valley would be interested in your point of view.


    Don Howell

  2. Well – i completely agree that many marketers don’t know enough about the basics these days, but..since I have taught marketing classes for several universities for about 10 years..I’d have to say, it is included in the textbooks (or ebooks) and roughly covered in class…but even many instructors don’t really understand the importance of it.

    I think you really only understand the importance of these key concepts when you work in an organization that values them on a newer brand that is reliant on them. That means unless you’ve worked in new product development or on a mid level brand at some point in your career – you’re not going to really have used these key principles.

    Thanks for bringing these points up- I had a few conversations at Expo West a month or so ago with top marketing folks who couldn’t have agreed more!

  3. Very good point, Maryanne. Most of my career has been in product or brand launches, so I have had these principles drilled into my skull in the “School of Hard Knocks”. I agree that these principles are addressed in textbooks, but in order to effectively teach them you must have practical experience in executing them. Most classes I have seen merely gloss over them.

    Thanks for your insight!

  4. I think technology is allowing marketers to start to get the idea of how transparency and conversation marketing can work for their clients.

    Before the technology, transparency was not offered because it wasn’t known that it could exist. Advertisers pushed content to the consumer and did not need to be questioned about it.

    I think more than just the teachers need to learn and engage. Small business owners as well as the majority of marketers need to absorb as much as they can to help generate business in this new model.

    I know I have much to learn (can’t we all) and have gained a few pointers from this post.

    Thanks for sharing Navel Marketing.

  5. I completely agree with you, Paul. 6 years ago, transparency wasn’t as possible, let alone demanded by consumers. With the advent of Web 2.0 tools, it is now a requirement of any brand.

    I also agree that it is not just teachers. Many of my clients are small business owners and I do a significant amount of education around these principles. I would even argue that many big brands have also forgotten about these principles.

    Thanks for the comment.

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